Saturday, February 13, 2010

Portland's Chinatown: It ain't what is used to be

PORTLAND, Ore. – An afternoon in Portland’s Chinatown makes one thing painfully clear – despite obvious efforts of a remarkable group that have made a garden blossom where it shouldn’t, this place isn’t what it used to be.

On the weekend of Chinese New Year, the handful of blocks comprising Chinatown is quiet, populated by as many vagrants as tourists. At one point, a man pushing a baby stroller came alongside my son-in-law, who also was pushing a stroller with his one-year-old seated inside, and inexplicably showed him the switchblade he had stored in one of the stroller’s compartments.

“You should carry one just in case someone tries to snatch your kid,” he said, and he walked on.

We stop at the House of Louie so I can buy a couple of char siu bao, a  steamed dumpling of barbecued pork in fluffy bread that I developed a taste for during two years in Hong Kong in the late 70s.They are good, but much leaner than the ones in Hong Kong. We stop and watch some Ping-Pong outside the restaurant and head into the center of Chinatown, which is, frankly, pretty grim.

In a gift shop selling Chinese trinkets, the man behind the counter hesitated when we asked whether there would be a parade or lion dancers for the New Year.

“I think maybe next week,” he said.

He was equally uncertain when we asked whether he’d recommend eating an early dinner at the House of Louie.

“Well, I haven’t been there in two years,” he said. In other words, “don’t go.”

“The best (Chinese) restaurants are over on the east side” of the Willamette River, he added.

Still, we went to the nearly empty Golden Horse restaurant and the food was plentiful and good. But San Francisco this is not.

The one oasis is the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which takes up a full city block on the edge of Chinatown, surrounded by tallish buildings. While not as spectacular or expansive as the Portland Japanese Garden west of downtown, its attention to authentic detail is remarkable. It was a chilly February day and my family waited for me outside, so my time there was too short.

Sadly, much of the rest of Chinatown is in disrepair or for sale.

So, more about the Chinese Garden. Opened in 2000 by the city of Portland (in what one might presume to be a last, desperate attempt to save this section of downtown), the garden is really more architectural than horticultural, with a traditional teahouse and other buildings made of native Chinese wood and other materials. There are rocks mined from Lake Tai near Suzhou (Portland’s Chinese sister city), live bamboo and other plants native to China. Even in the gloom of mid-February camellia trees are blooming.

About 20 percent of the 40,000-square-foot garden is water, called Lake Zither (a type of zither called a guzheng is responsible for creating much of traditional Chinese music), mimicking ancient Chinese gardens of the Suzhou area. The structures inside the garden were built by workers from Suzhou.

In short, it’s strikingly beautiful and authentic, and strangely out of place in what otherwise appears to be a dying section of Portland.

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